The Interpretive Feast

Last fall I was introduced to Professor Britt Yamamoto, who teaches a master’s level class on the Politics of Food & Eating. Within seconds, I prodded him with questions about the class. "What topics are you covering? What's the required reading? How is the class structured?" He escaped my questions (read: interrogation) by sending me a copy of the syllabus.

Class readings probed serious issues surrounding agribusiness, sustainability, food sovereignty, biotechnology, and commodified food.

The class culminated with an assignment titled “The Interpretive Feast." Students were instructed to "explore your deeply embedded, largely unexamined personal eating narratives and recognize how these are linked to the broader social phenomena….Consider the broader scope of culture, history, politics, and economics.”

With that basis, students were asked to incorporate these ideas by preparing a dish that had meaning for them. This interactive assignment culled from a number of sources, including family traditions and favorite foods, using significance as a guideline.

I scored an invitation to the Interpretive Feast and on a drizzly morning, arrived at Professor Yamamoto's house. In the kitchen, a small group of students assembled their final preparations while I waited in the wings.

I've attempted to capture the experience in words at least a dozen times. Each attempt, my words ring more feeble than the first, but what I can say is that day had a profound impact on the way I look at food. I began to realize that every dish has meaning and it's as deeply personal as the person who prepared it. From the scones inspired by the mother-daughter tea in London, to authentic wild rice that still carries the scent of Minnesota lakes...and home, to the memories of family hunting camps and melt-in-your-mouth elk stew, food is a powerful thing. It ties us to the land and the people. It shapes our memories, provides comfort, and a link to our history. Food is so much more than mere consumption.

And then there's the story that moved me to tears. Fleeing Nazi occupation, a young Jewish girl abruptly left her homeland. She lost her siblings and all links to the past…except for her challah recipe. Over the course of her young life, every Friday she kneaded the dough. The recipe went hand in hand with the evening prayers, and this she knew by heart.

Flash forward 50+ years.

On a rain-soaked day in North Seattle, her granddaughter wove the pieces together with her own story. Her own life took a wayward path of rebellion and drugs, which had a powerful hold. An unexpected pregnancy proved to be a turning point. She kicked the drug habit and eventually made her way back to college. Along the way, she became curious about her heritage, and discovered her family’s Jewish traditions. The undercurrent of a rebel bubbles to the surface as she describes her faith--subscribing to those traditions that resonated and cast off those that didn’t. The challah became a powerful symbol…uniting these two women, present and past.

Every Friday, she makes challah for the Sabbath…with a recipe handed down from her grandmother. Today, her own daughter helps kneed the bread. Friends stop by and take a turn. From the traditions of the past, we erect our own traditions.

Blessing the bread

Flour, yeast and water symbolize so much more than their individual components. History, culture, faith, traditions…old and new, weave a web, uniting the past with the present.

Thanks to this experience, I’ve become much more reflective. Food isn’t just food anymore. I think about the stories, the traditions, and the people that had a hand in this food.

My everyday life is not always about the grass-fed beef raised on Tom Hartley’s farm, trimmed into steaks by an artisan butcher who has been working at the family business since he was 6 years old.

I recall my own family traditions…like tuna-noodle casserole, oozing with Velveeta cheese and crushed potato chips on top (the wavy kind, if we were lucky). This dish is a link to my own past, and present. As a kid, it was one of our most requested meals. But now, as an adult striving to be a more conscientious eater, I shudder to think how often I ate tuna noodle casserole…and the revolt that would follow if my mother used anything but Velveeta. (“Cheddar? How could you use cheddar?”)

Much to my grandmother’s distain, my mother was the first woman to hold a job in our family. She was the first to grapple with the precarious balancing act…juggling between the demands of work and family. Tuna noodle casserole was quick and easy. Mom could satisfy me, the youngest in the family, and still keep it hot while waiting for my brother to come home from football practice, or for my dad to drag himself home from a business trip. Thanks to tuna noodle casserole, we each enjoyed a hot meal…whenever we made our way to the table. And as I grew older, I learned, that’s no easy feat.

Each meal, we are presented with an opportunity for an interpretive feast. Whether you’re recalling traditions, or making new ones, think about it. This meal…what does it say about you?

Related Post:

I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke